Proactive work, professionalism prevail as officers and crews of Bellatrix, Altair keep ships safe through Hurricane Ida

After intensifying into a hurricane and making landfall in western Cuba on August 27, Hurricane Ida grew in strength as it moved north through the Gulf of Mexico, reaching its peak as a strong Category 4 storm with maximum sustained winds of 150 mph.

On August 29, 2021, the 16th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina making landfall on the Gulf Coast, Hurricane Ida made landfall near Port Fourchon, La.

Rafted together at a pier on the Mississippi River near New Orleans, the Ready Reserve Force ships Bellatrix and Altair weathered the storm in place under the command of American Maritime Officers members Captain Robert Wattam and Captain Robert Lansden, respectively.

Both ships are operated for the Maritime Administration by TOTE Services, Inc. AMO represents the licensed officers aboard these fast sealift ships and the Seafarers International Union represents the unlicensed crew members.

"Captain Robert Wattam commanded the S/S Bellatrix, the outboard vessel, and I was asked to take the Altair, the inboard vessel," Lansden said.

"Both crews performed admirably in securing the vessels prior to the storm," said Lansden, noting that Captain Wattam had proactively procured the tugs South Carolina (5,500 HP) and Margaret F. Cooper (4,600 HP) to assist the ships through the hurricane.

"This was critical given the windspeeds. You can see at one time the Altair clocked gusts of 143 knots. The vessels through the night averaged 90 to 110 knot winds. Several smaller vessels sank in the river that night," he said.

"Ironically, this was 16 years after I brought the (then) USNS Pollux through Hurricane Katrina on August 29, 2005 at the same location," Lansden said. On the same date 16 years prior, the Pollux weathered Katrina at the pier. Following the storm, the ship - using onboard generators and resources - served as a local clinic for emergency medical treatment, such as dialysis, and provided food and fuel to the devastated community, and to key local facilities with generators that would otherwise have been left without any power for a long period of time.

On August 29, 2021, Chief Engineer Doug Konefal was working aboard the Bellatrix. Chief Engineer Fred Reyes had been assigned to assist on the Bellatrix with preparation of the ship for activation and deployment.

Prior to Ida making landfall, the Chief Engineer onboard the Altair, Tom Ostarly, was transferred to the S/S Pollux to assist with preparation of that fast sealift ship for activation and deployment. Chief Engineer Reyes took over as the senior engineering officer on the Altair.

The engineers powered up the vessels for activation prior to the storm. However, when it was determined through satellite imagery and storm tracking that there was no safe route into open water without encountering the advancing hurricane, the Bellatrix and Altair were powered down and kept operational on generator power throughout Ida's landfall.

"It was an honor to work alongside Captain Wattam and our crews to see the vessels safely through," Lansden said. "Both the Bellatrix and Altair are critical to national security given their large square footage and speed capabilities of 33-or-more knots. Both vessels remain safe today because of the proactive work by AMO officers and the crews supported by TOTE and MARAD representatives."